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Breathless: a Berlinale diary

Ekkehard Knörer is out there, scouring the Berlinale for every possible manifestation of greatness...

The Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick announced last week that there were at least six German films that he could have shown in the Competition section. Well, a pot-pourri of four have made it. One that fell through the net was the new film by Dominik Graf who will have to settle for a place in the Panorama section for his East German generation portrait, "The Red Cockatoo". Detlev Buck befell a similar fate with "Tough Enough", his first film in six years. And even more surprising is that Ulrich Köhler's second film "Windows On Monday" will only be shown in the Forum section. His story of an estrangement is a worthy successor to his debut "Bungalow" which was lauded high and low and rightly so. Köhler's second film is even better, a fusion of precise film making and bizarre humour. The ghostly performance of the old Rumanian tennis star Ilie Nastase in a gift-wrapped hotel is one of the greatest moments in German cinema in years. Another Forum runner is Henner Winkler's highly-concentrated and meticulous study of a young family, "Lucy". Andres Veiel's film version of his theatre piece about a recent Neo-Nazi murder, "The Kick", will show in the Panorama, as will a political pamphlet by Jan-Henrik Stahlberg (of "Muxmäuschenstill") "Bye Bye Berlusconi". Most hotly anticipated, though, is Thomas Arslan's documentary of his journey through Turkey, "From Far Away".

Nina Hoss in Oskar Roehler's "Atomised", szene from Detlev Buck's "Tough Enough"

But it is Oskar Röhler's latest project on self-destructive transgressions that Kosslick seems most intent on feeding to the world's press gathered together for the Competition screenings. And indeed Röhler may well have found a match made in hell in Michel Houllebecq's "Atomised". The cast is a who's who of Germany's cinema elite: Moritz Bleibtreu, Christian Ulmen, Martina Gedeck, Franka Potente, Nina Hoss, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Corinna Harfouch and Jasmin Tabatabai. Another Competition contribution is Hans-Christian Schmid's true-life exorcism story "Requiem". After his overly theoretical and clichee-laden "Lights" he is now concentrating on what he's really good at, namely the unobtrusive presentation of the German Republic's past. Fingers crossed that Valeska Griesebach will live up to the promise of her debut "My Star" with "Longing", an East German love story played mostly by non-actors, that, word has it, made substantial demands on all involved. And it remains to be seen what degree of subtlety Matthias Glasner, who has opted for style over substance in his directing until now, can bring to his portrait of a rapist, "The Free Will" starring Jürgen Vogel.

So, that's the Germans out of the way. But there are plenty more interesting specimens in store. Two works from Iran, for example, are running in the Competition. Jafar Panahi, who began his career assisting Abbas Kiarostami, has long since distinguished himself as a director in his own right. His film "Offside" a somewhat last-minute invitation to the festival, is about the determination of female football fans to watch the game despite bans on women in stadiums. The desolate situation of the underclasses is portrayed in both Rafi Pitt's tale of unemployment, "It's winter", and Nasser Refaie's Forum contribution, "Another Morning", which offers rare glimpses of daily life on the margins of a society torn apart by contradictions."Men at Work" by Mani Haghighi (another former Kiarostami assistant) provides a satirical look at the other end of the society, Tehran's upper and men-only crust.

Scenes from Jafar Panahi's "Offside", Hugo Weaving in James McTeigue's "V for Vendetta"

The majority of films from the US are suspiciously "red carpet" but Robert Altman's latest work, "A Prairie Home Companion", one hopes, will at least have more to it than its glittering cast: Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Kevin Kline etc. Showing in the Competition, though not competing for the Bears, are George Clooney's satire "Syriana", the film of the Alan Moore comic "V for Vendetta" which has hopes riding high after test screenings, and the Oscar-nominated biopic "Capote". Terence Malick's meditation on America "The New World" is something to look forward to. It's certainly had some critics waxing lyrical, although the director re-edited and cut out 17 minutes after its first screening in the States. (Klaus Theweleit recently tore it to pieces in the Tagesspiegel).

It came as a huge surprise at the end of January when it was announced that old chestnut Sidney Lumet, whose best works surely lie in the distant past, had been invited to show his latest offering. "Find Me Guilty" (starring Vin Diesel) is another bash at the courtroom drama, milking the successes of "The Verdict and "Twelve Angry Men". Michael Winterbottom has not been twiddling his thumbs either. Even before his last critical smash hit, the Tristram Shandy film "A Cock and Bull Story", has even made it to German screens, along comes the next one. "The Road to Guantanamo" heralds the return of the Briton to the realm of daily politics, in the tradition of his earlier Golden Bear winner "Into this World."

One stunning contribution to this year's "International forum of new cinema" is Amir Muhammad's "The Last Communist". The young Malaysian director is already being hailed as a rising star of world cinema. His attempt to tell the history of the last eighty years of Malaysian history through the life of communist resistance fighter is compelling for its breathtaking combination of documentary precision, its love of digression and ellipsis and its campy but hilarious musical video intermezzi. After last year's strong performance, Chinese cinema features lesss prominently – but Zhang Ming's slow and enigmatic beach hotel elegy "Before Born" (also in the Forum) is not without its charms.

Scenes from Zhang Ming's "Before born" and Amir Muhammad's "The Last Communist"

French cinema also seem rather under-represented. The Competition features Claude Chabrol's new political thriller "Comedy of Power" starring Isabelle Huppert and Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep" (a non-competer) whose young hero, Gael Garcia Bernal, loses himself in a world between dream and reality. A second Gondry film features in the Panorama, the documentary "Dave Chappelle's Block Party". Another Competition candidate which has been relegated to the Forum is Brice Cauvin's terrorism tragedy "De particulier a particulier", a strange intermingling of the private and public. What makes the film so convincing is its consistent refusal to provide explanations and the string of pearl-like performances from the fabulous Anouk Aimee. We can also look forward to new goodies from old favourites like Chantal Akerman, James Benning and Barbara and Winfried Junge's final and over-four-hour-long part of their "Kinder von Golzow" documentary.

Cillian Murphy and Laurence Kinlan in Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto", Xiao Li Yuan in Royston Tan's "4:30"

Alongside its focus on documentary and queer cinema, the Panorama section is a hold-all for those features which don't quite fit the criteria or quotas for the Competition and yet lack the prerequisite radicality for Forum films. The programme brings together a motley crew of jinxed, semi-successful, undecided and art-house produce. Sometimes though you stumble across a real diamond. Look out this year for the new film by Marc "Monster's Ball" Foster, "Stay", and Neil Jordan's film of Patrick McCabe's "Breakfast on Pluto" starring Cillian Murphy, an actor, or some might say "a revelation", playing a transvestite cabaret singer. On the basis of their earlier work, we can hope for some unusual surprises in Daniel Burman's "Family Law" and Royston Tan's "4:30" about the relationship between a Chinese boy and a young Korean man.

Scenes from Thomas Arslan's documentary "From Far Away" and Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep"

Then there's all the rest, which will certainly include the unexpected and the thrilling, if not throughout. We hope for the mad and the beautiful, the puzzling and the devastating, understatement and excess. May we be spared the tired and the predictable, the pretentious and the oversimplified political message. Experience tells me that not every wish will be fulfilled, but one thing is certain: we'll be fishing out the pearls of the Berlinale 2006, keeping you in a front row seat

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International forum of new cinema
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